The transatlantic community is weaker and more divided than it has been in a century, sending shockwaves through a world accustomed to seeing the US and the EU lead by example on a global scale.
Since the end of the Cold War, nation-states have struggled to maintain their traditional spheres of power and remain relevant within a fast-changing global environment. The early nineties brought a sudden acceleration of the multiple political, socio-economic, and technological processes shaping globalization. Coupled with the rise of powerful non-state actors and the redefinition of core principles of the international order like sovereignty, non-interference, and use of force, both phenomena posed a serious conceptual and functional challenge to the traditional nation state.
Despite all changes that were unfolding, and the slow but constant rise of other big players like China, India, and Brazil, both the United States and the European Union succeeded in maintaining their status: the former as the sole international superpower; the latter, as a consolidated economic power and an example of supranational integration.
The first decade of the 21st Century could well be regarded in the future as a historic turning point in which power distribution within the international system was altered in ways few would have ever imagined. The invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, combined with a controversial war to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, deprived the United States of much of its legitimacy and public support at the height of its power, and brought the country to a state of military and economic overstretch from which it has not yet recovered. The European Union crippled under the weight of its own enlargement process and a sterile constitutional debate that didn’t help consolidate the existing institutions or advance a common political agenda. Quite suddenly, the transatlantic community’s undisputed authority to promote and shape international rules, create new partnerships, and combine efforts in multilateral institutions, seemed to fade away, and a decade of potential promise turned into a lost decade.
Then came the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression, making our contradictions more visible, our systemic vulnerabilities evident, and our incapacity to find a strong, sustainable response to it palpable. The frustrating domestic battle that unraveled inside the US over the debt ceiling deal during these last months, putting the country on the verge of default, has severely damaged the credibility of both Democrats and Republicans and led President Obama’s approval rating to plummet to an all-time low. In Europe, the critical financial situation of Ireland, Portugal, and Greece, paired with growing instabilities in Spain and Italy, has put the political and economic project to a test that it may not pass.
In times of internal turmoil, it has become much harder to come to each other’s help and, even worst, extremely easy to disengage on several international fronts to focus mainly on pressing domestic agendas. The huge rebalancing act taking place on both sides of the Atlantic has also claimed an undesired victim — American and European credibility as global leaders. Although the rising powers keep looking at the US as an indisputable reference point, and the EU has set an example on regional integration for others to follow, we are gradually losing the battle of narratives: we are divided, weak, overstretched, stagnated, and disoriented, while others exude dynamism, promise, and strength. We are reaching a point at which the capacity to project military, economic, and soft power by the leading players of the West has been severely compromised, while the rising powers of the East and South are not nearly ready to dispute or claim a defining role within the international system. In a way, we are transitioning to a state of global weakness, a “G- Zero” world we should avoid.
Getting back on track will be tough, highly dependent on external perceptions about our ability to do so, and will require enormous political and economic sacrifices. But if the United States and the European Union don’t make the effort now to start working better together and defining a global agenda that overcomes some of the mutual frustrations of the past, we could soon be joining the club of powers that are big enough to act globally, but not powerful enough to shape the future and lead the way.
In that sense, the Arab Spring presents a unique opportunity to enhance transatlantic cooperation and to try to regain momentum in the international arena: how democratic transitions develop in Tunisia and Egypt will probably define the political and economic dynamics of the north-African region for years to come; an important debate will have to take place in the UN Security Council regarding Syria’s brutal crackdown on democratic protests; the success of NATO’s military intervention in Libya will spur a debate about the feasibility of a more balanced alliance moving forward and the capacity of European forces to take the lead in their neighboring regions; the stalled Middle East peace process will have to be reignited by the Quartet as this September’s UN Generally Assembly meeting, where Palestine could be recognized as a state, approaches.
More globally, meaningful cooperation remains untapped in significant policy areas, as the United States and Europe are still in a position to advocate for and influence the process of reform of global financial institutions, coordinate through strong public-private partnerships a serious transatlantic cyber-security strategy, and make a real, high-level bilateral effort to come up with a joint position before the next round of climate change negotiations take place in Durban.
Despite a loss of relative power vis-à-vis a rising East, and the forces of globalization eroding the community’s traditional mechanisms of dominance, strong leadership on both sides of the Atlantic will ultimately help define the years to come and avoid the state of global weakness we are heading towards. One decade after 9/11, the future is still ours to shape, and win.
Carles Castello-Catchot is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Project.